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October 2001
Vol. 10, No. 10,
pp 63–64.
Profiles in Chemistry
A legend in his own time

Arnold Beckman’s scientific and technological achievements ushered in the instrumentation revolution.

Arnold Orville Beckman is a prolific educator, inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist who literally has become a legend in his own time. His multifaceted scientific and technological achievements ushered in the instrumentation revolution. His legacy will live on through his instruments, the firms that he founded, the achievements of his students, and the institutes that he and his wife so generously endowed.

Beckman was born on April 10, 1900, in the small farming community of Cullom, IL. His mother instilled in him the importance of disciplined effort in achieving success—a characteristic trait throughout his life and career. At the age of nine, thanks to a copy of Joel Dorman Steele’s Fourteen Weeks in Chemistry, he got hooked on “the central science”. For his 10th birthday, his father built him a small “shop” behind the house for his chemistry experiments. At 12, Beckman became a grocery clerk and “resident chemist” in a general store where he was “official cream tester”.

In 1912, Beckman’s mother died. Two years later, his father moved the family to Normal, IL, and in 1915 to nearby Bloomington, IL. Beckman took several college-level chemistry courses at the University High School in Normal, and he earned money as a consulting analytical chemist at Bloomington’s Union Gas & Electric Co. He had business cards printed, and his home laboratory became “Bloomington Research Laboratories”, of which he was “Chief Scientist”.

After his high school graduation, in August 1918 near the end of World War I, Beckman joined the U.S. Marines and reported to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a major embarkation point for troops headed for Europe. At a Thanksgiving Day dinner he met and fell in love with 17-year-old Mabel S. Meinzer of Brooklyn. According to Beckman, “Luck has played a big role in my life—finding a chemistry textbook and meeting my wife through lucky circumstance” (1). The couple did not marry until six and a half years later when Beckman had established himself financially, but their romance continued by frequent correspondence.

Higher Education
After his discharge in 1919, Beckman entered the University of Illinois, Urbana, that fall. He intended to become an organic chemist. However, he developed a sensitivity to organic mercury compounds while working on a project assigned to him by Carl (“Speed”) Marvel, so he switched his major. In 1922, he received his B.S. in chemical engineering and in 1923 his M.S. in physical chemistry. He then began graduate studies at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. However, in 1924 he left school to find a well-paying job in New York and to be near Mabel.

At Bell Laboratories, Beckman became the first technical employee of Walter Andrew Stewhart, later known as the father of statistical quality control. He spent two years (1924–1926) learning about electronic technology, the vacuum tube, statistical quality control in manufacturing, and the structure of research and development. Less than a decade later he would make the “marriage of chemistry and electronics” a reality. In Beckman’s words, “If I’d never gone to Bell Labs, I might not have developed any interest in electronics” (1).

On June 10, 1925, Beckman married Mabel and in fall 1926 returned to Caltech. In 1928, he received his Ph.D. for research on the photochemical decomposition of hydrazine. He was appointed an instructor at Caltech and assistant professor a year later. He continued his photochemical research and was becoming known as a master of experimental apparatus and instrumentation, but his primary interest lay in teaching. By 1936, Beckman had received three patents.

The pH Meter
Beckman’s next invention changed the course of his life and revolutionized chemistry. Glen Joseph, a chemist at the California Fruit Growers Exchange laboratory, asked Beckman to help him obtain consistent measurements of lemon juice acidity. The sulfur dioxide preservative bleached litmus paper and “poisoned” the hydrogen electrode. The sensitive galvanometer used to measure the current produced by the glass electrode often failed. Beckman substituted a vacuum-tube for the galvanometer so that a sturdier glass electrode could be used.

Beckman’s “acidimeter”, later called the pH meter, was revolutionary. Its highly sensitive amplifier was an electronic innovation, and his idea of building an integrated chemistry instrument around it was also new. For the first time, scientists with no expertise in chemistry or electronics could buy a portable, precision instrument and immediately make quick, simple, and reliable measurements, leaving them free to focus on the measurements instead of tinkering with wires and meters. The innovation marked the opening commercial move in the 20th century’s instrumentation revolution that has made the research frontier more accessible to increasing numbers of investigators and that has made possible the exponential growth of scientific knowledge. Once again, what Beckman called “pluck and luck” had intervened in his life. As he expressed it, “If Dr. Joseph hadn’t come in with his lemon-juice problem, chances are I never in the world would have thought about making a pH meter” (1).

In 1939, Beckman resigned from Caltech and began a career as a full-time instrument maker and entrepreneur. A series of instruments flowed from his creative, problem-solving imagination. During World War II, he provided crucial parts for radar and the Manhattan Project. The Beckman DU spectrophotometer appeared in 1942. It was “the first ready-to-use tool for determining the makeup of a given substance by analyzing the appearance of its absorption spectrum.” It found application in wartime projects producing penicillin, TNT, and synthetic rubber. Nobel chemistry laureate R. Bruce Merrifield called it “probably the most important instrument ever developed toward the advancement of bioscience” (1).

The DU focused on the ultraviolet region of the spectrum so Beckman built infrared spectrophotometers (IR-1 to IR-4) for the synthetic rubber program. For the MIT Radiation Laboratory’s radar systems he produced the “Helipot” (helical potentiometer). Other inventions for the Manhattan Project were the micro-microammeter and quartz fiber dosimeter. He established Arnold O. Beckman, Inc., to produce his oxygen analyzer for submarines and high-flying aircraft, later used for monitoring oxygen levels in incubators for premature infants—an early use of instruments in clinical and biomedical applications.

By war’s end, Beckman had created new instruments and companies, fulfilled government contracts and expectations, entered the electronics market, and expanded production of his inventions. Now he diversified, opening new and larger plants to produce more cutting-edge instruments and accessories, including mass spectrometers, mobile air quality laboratories, and automobile exhaust gas analyzers. On April 27, 1950, he renamed his primary company Beckman Instruments, Inc. It led the U.S. instrument industry in spin-offs, job-hopping (some employees left to found their own firms), and entrepreneurship that characterize today’s new industries.

In 1953, Beckman became the first Caltech alumnus to serve on its Board of Trustees and in 1964 he became chairman. In 1965, he resigned the presidency of Beckman Instruments but remained chairman of its board of directors. That same year, the Beckman Auditorium, constructed through his and Mabel’s $1 million gift, was opened, and in 1974, when Beckman became a Caltech life trustee, the Beckmans donated $6 million to construct the Mabel and Arnold Beckman Laboratories of Behavioral Biology.

In 1981, Beckman retired from Beckman Instruments to devote himself to full-time philanthropy as head of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, which had been incorporated in September 1977 to “support basic scientific research, with an emphasis on the forward looking in chemistry, biochemistry, medicine, and instrumentation.”

On June 1, 1989, Mabel Beckman died of cancer. After recovering from a broken hip and his grief over Mabel’s death, Beckman decided that the foundation should be “recast as a foundation in perpetuity, spending only its income” (1). Because of declining health and the burden of administering the foundation, he retired in 1993 but continues as chairman emeritus. His daughter Pat now lives with him at his home in Corona Del Mar, CA.

On April 7–8, 2000, Caltech commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Beckman Institute on the Pasadena campus with a two-day, four-session symposium dubbed the “Beckmanfest”. The symposium featured a dozen speakers discussing cutting-edge research and developments at the point where chemistry and biology interact. A gala dinner was held on April 10 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the chemist–inventor–entrepreneur–philanthropist whose gifts to Caltech have shaped the campus in profound ways.


  1. Thackray, A.; Myers, Jr., M. Arnold O. Beckman: One Hundred Years of Excellence; Chemical Heritage Foundation: Philadelphia, 2000.

Further Reading

  • Beckman, A. O.; Dickinson, R. G. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1928, 50, 1870–1875.
  • Beckman, A. O. J. Optical Soc. Amer. 1928, 16, 276–277.
  • Carey, H. H.; Beckman, A. O. J. Optical Soc. Amer. 1941, 31, 682–689.

George B. Kauffman is a professor of chemistry at California State University, Fresno and recipient of the 2000 American Chemical Society Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution. Laurie M. Kauffman, his wife and frequent coauthor, is a retired schoolteacher with an interest in the humanistic aspects of science. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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